Q&A with Jon Bacal: Looking Back on a Year of Starting a School From Scratch

Venture Academy in Minneapolis went through some growing pains its first year. The 6-12 charter school, which opened in August for its second year of operation, promotes entrepreneurship through technology and student-developed projects. Students are called “trailblazers” and teachers are “learning coaches.” Students spend part of the day in small groups or on computers working on math and literacy skills. They have opportunities to work on large-scale independent projects and learn about digital media and web development.

School founder Jon Bacal talked with The Hechinger Report about the challenges of starting up an nontraditional school, as well as the lessons that he and his staff learned along the way.

What lessons did you learn during your first year? What have you changed?

Venture Academy in Minneapolis relies, in part, on computer programs to help students who are far behind catch up. (Photo courtesy Venture Academy)

Venture Academy in Minneapolis relies, in part, on computer programs to help students who are far behind catch up. (Photo courtesy Venture Academy)

We’ve changed a lot heading into the second year. We set out to create a school designed to maximize, to cultivate intrinsic motivation, which we believe is the key driver for longterm learning. The components of that are personalization – adapting the pace and the type of learning to the needs and interests of individual young people and to help people discover those interests so they can tap into their passions. Another component is self-directed learning to let students take more ownership and control over their goals and learning. The purpose that drives Venture’s program is cultivating entrepreneurial leadership – to help young people develop that aspiration to really make a difference in the world, both while they’re at school as well as afterwards.

We didn’t have a firm handle on what the learning needs of our young people would be before we opened. The big learning in the first month or two was recognizing how far behind the kids we had were – most were three to four years behind in literacy and math—the average student entered, [with tests that put them in] the lowest 5 percent nationally.  We struggled last year to balance a traditional, remedial approach to help students catch up quickly in math and literacy while encouraging personalization, deeper learning and the pursuit of passions and interests.  It took us most of the year to figure out the right mix of approaches.  There are three cornerstones of “no excuses” schools that we are attempting to integrate into our model – very high college and life expectations; a coherent, purposeful, sweat-the-small-stuff school culture to ensure everyone is on the same page; and the use of data to inform instruction and learning. We think those are unquestionably good things and very helpful with kids three, four years behind. We believe in high standards—and are focused on growth measures and authentic performance tasks, versus grade level multiple choice exams.  Our students did make 150 percent fall-to-spring gains in math and 170 percent in reading. That may sound good, but it’s not good enough.  It may take as much as 300 percent growth to prepare our young people to thrive in a four-year college and entrepreneurial or professional futures.

How important is blended learning and technology to what you’re doing?

It’s certainly important. [But] it is possible to overstate it. We don’t think it’s about the technology. It’s simply a tool that makes it easier to personalize and easier to have self-directed learning. For example, we use some digital programs where students can go at their own pace to practice core skills. It doesn’t replace the teacher’s role but it enables that practice, that reinforcement that is so important. It provides helpful data to students on where they are and to their educators. But, particularly in the first half of last year, there was too much self-directed time on the computer. Those programs were designed to be supplementary not to be the main thing. This year, it’s much more guided by educators. [Digital learning] is a useful tool, but there’s been a lot more hype than deserved.

What sort of advice would you give to other school start ups that want to do something similar to what you’re doing?

Having clarity. Getting very, very clear at the beginning is very important. Clear about why we exist, how we behave, what’s most important. Those all sound basic but we weren’t clear enough on any of those things. For example, on why we exist, we hadn’t been as clear as we needed to be about translating our mission of entrepreneurial leadership into our day-to-day program. I think we now feel that we’re much clearer. How you use, for example, the precious professional development time -we had much more time than other schools, but we could have used it better, and we’ve learned from that. The adult learning and the adult clarity is incredible important.

Another lesson, and I think we did better at this – you have the opportunity to intentionally select the people who are going to be the best at your program. In some ways it’s a different job than coming into an existing school. Our three core values that we’ve figured out having into the second year – we didn’t have in the first year – are vision, tenacity, and adaptability. And those are three values that help translate our mission into our day-to-day work. Those are values both for the adults as well as the students.

Maybe the biggest obstacle of starting a new school with this kind of model, it does really go against the DNA of traditional school, where the focus is not on personalization and self-direction despite many, if not most, educators in traditional schools understanding and on some level being interested in those things. It’s just really hard for educators to do that given that system and the expectations put on them. We’ve learned a lot through our own mistakes, and in some ways that’s a very sticky kind of learning for adults. Our students really didn’t make the progress that we would have liked them to make and that’s very sobering. We have high expectations and know these young people very well and care very deeply about them. Every adult in this building knows all of the young people and their families and that’s important too. It’s a different job if you’re coming into an existing school trying to change it with 1,000 kids. That’s a whole different world. Starting small with school size is a very important thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz received a bachelor's degree from Tufts University and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.